Thursday, October 29, 2009


I often hear comments such as, "I only climb/fly/paddle/walk/whatever for myself." While this is ultimately true, the same people always immediately know their best onsights, longest distance flown, most impressive route climbed, etc. etc. If you ever want to see some competitive attitude come out among climbers just suggest that the local favorite 10c is really 10a... So people do measure themselves, and care about the results. This is why weight-room training is so seductive; you get measurable results, you can compare your results, and it's all very controlled and nice.

I'm still stuck on this idea of people, myself included, measuring what we did or didn't do in alpine or winter climbing. Maybe because there's a tremendous amount of posing in these genres of climbing, and no real quantifiable definition of success other than reaching the summit and/or surviving. The tales that come back from these trips often read like the participants succeeded due to fantastic ability, toughness, training, etc. This interests me; I know I've come back from alpine climbing trips with the feeling that the climb took everything I had to give. But was that feeling real or had I just set my own limits and then bumped against them? And when I or anyone fails on a mountain/alpine/whatever climb we usually pull out all kinds of justifications. Too much avalanche hazard, too little snow, not enough ice, wind blowing the wrong direction, etc. Usually these "reasons" are presented as absolutes. "There wasn't enough ice to go up."

I suspect that often my and others achievements on any given day are not all that special in the mountains or on the ice, and our failures often more mental than real. By that I mean that if you put a large field of people on that face in the same conditions times would drop dramatically, success rates go up, etc. etc. Ueli Steck has shown this with his North Face ascents in the Alps. Now Ueli is my friend and a very talented guy, but he's not special genetically or even mentally (well, a bit special mentally). The fastest time on the Grand Teton is held not by any of the guides or well-known alpine climbers who have lived and worked in the range (and gone fast on a lot of routes) but by a runner with enough climbing skill to handle the technical challenges of the Grand.

I'm dancing around an idea here, trying to figure it out. Perhaps the most obvious example of a large pool of talent showing the actual potential of a mountain situation comes in paragliding. A competition day can be lousy for flying distance; weak thermals, bad wind, overcast, etc. etc. But if you set a competition task someone often completes it. Even on a day when the local pilots would all say no cross-country was possible. A little of the positive result comes from the field working together, but it's often one or two pilots who go off alone and make it to goal. Those pilots show the real potential of the day; if only a few pilots were sitting on launch they would be lazy and the day would be written off as "not good." How many climbs have I failed on for lack of vision?

To me this realization is cause for great optimism about the future of many mountain sports. 5.9 used to be hard; the rock hasn't changed, our raw strength hasn't changed dramatically, but now 5.9 is commonplace, a beginner can do it in street shoes. The north face of the Eigre was the be-all end-all route, worth dying for. Now a guy runs it in under four hours. Running a 30-foot waterfall was the absolute edge of the sport 25 years ago; now people are regularly going over 100 feet, and the "record" is closer to 200.

When we're in the mountains we're likely limited more by how we perceive the situation and our abilities than we are by the reality. If we put 100 top or even good athletes on a route in the same conditions the results would be mind-blowing, even in less than ideal conditions. A few years ago we tried to climb a north face in the Himalaya, and never really got going. A few other climbers showed up and sent it in four days, easy. I'm not arguing for pushing harder in the face of "stupid" danger, but trying to understand why the hard routes of yesterday are easy today, and why the impossible is often the easy when enough people put energy toward it.

This blog is likely to slow down for a bit, it's climbing season and I am so stoked to go and mess with my own limits and headspace, breathe clean air, move, smash some ice and get it ON! Happy winter!


Unknown said...

I think it really just shows what type of mental boundaries people create for themselves. Look any technical sport say skateboarding. Back in the 80's if you could do a kickflip you might get sponsored, by the late 90's it had progressed to being a beginner trick.

It's always harder to be the first, to do something never done before. I don't think it means what ever it is your trying is physically harder, it's mostly mental. Once you know it can be done it's easier, whether or not you did it first or someone else did.

Kim Graves said...


I don’t think it’s just mental, though that certainly plays a part in it. I think there are historical forces as work as well. For example, I started climbing in 1970 at a little crag outside of Washington DC called Carderrock. At the time (pre nut, pre cam) the hardest climbs were called “hard 5.10.” Bridwell had not yet invented the harder grades. So we and others would work on these undifferentiated problems. And the climbers (not me) would actually climb them. These climbs have now been regraded – the hardest of which is 13b. There is a big difference between 5.10 and 13b! But my point is that without a differentiation, it was hard to know how to work. For example, in order to climb 10b the standard way is to climb a lot of 10a’s first. But if you’re simply working on “hard 10” which ends up being 13b you’re just flailing and going no where. So I think an open ended grading system really helped.

2) Climbing specific training. When I first started climbing we only had the outside available to us. There were no climbing gyms. Indeed the idea of going to the gym to stay in shape was unheard of. That was for boxers and professional athletes. So we would climb on the weekends for a 2, 3, 4 hours assuming the weather was good. So half the year we didn’t climb. So maybe we got in 40-60 hours of climbing a summer season. Now kids go to the climbing gym 3-4 days a week and to the regular gym the other days. That’s just a lot more practice. Indeed, when I was living in NYC and going to the climbing gym 12 hours a week and doing Crossfit, I was climbing better (at age 50) then I had as a kid. Indeed with indoor gyms, people can stay in shape year round.

Additionally, unlike when I was growing up, you can actually learn climbing technique in a structured way. Books, video, and actual classes can teach you technique. When I first started learning water ice climbing me and my partners were really struggling. But then we watched Jeff Lowes video tape. After watching the tape a couple dozen times, we could do things that we couldn’t do before watching it.

3) Gear improvement. It’s hard to measure how gear has and continues to change everything. Rubber technology in particular has been revolutionary. I started climbing in a too big pair of Royal Robins RR’s. I still have them and use them for aid. But I was climbing 9’s in them as a kid. Now I can climb 9’s in my approach shoes because of the rubber and my better technique.

Similarly ice gear. I started with a bamboo Chouinard/Frost ice ax and aluminum crampons over Aslo leather boots that weighed 8 pounds. I still have that gear. I put it next to my Scarpa Omega’s (that weigh 3-1/2 pounds) and BD Vipers and there is just no comparison. It is just MUCH harder to climb vertical ice with earlier technology.

4) Finally I think the acceptance of climbing as a standard recreational pursuit can’t be overstated. And that acceptance is huge. When I started climbing, there were maybe 100 climbers in all of Washington, DC. I was considered completely outrageous to be a climber. Now mothers (and fathers) drive their kids to the climbing gym in the family minivan. Girls/women climb – another huge change that has advanced the sport.

5) But why as mountaineering gone from big heavyweight expeditions to light weight alpinism? All of the above have made heavyweight expeditions too easy and not adventurous enough to satisfy the essence of what it means to be a climber. Climbing for me is an adventure sport. To maintain that adventure you have to push the grade given easier stuff is made easier by training, higher levels of experience, and gear.

Unknown said...

Kind of circles around what you are saying in the last two posts - but have you read House's book yet? I just finihsed it and was a little dissapointed by the end (kind of started to feel like beating a dead horse). But a nice book overall and makes some of the same philosophy points you are making. Does make a case for your last post about who is the best alpinist - maybe just based on his Alaska volume alone...

JD LeBlanc said...

dude - what's up? too much media frenzy over here - just back from a month in Southern France - got schooled, did some schooling - Buoux is freaking hard and mostly need to re-learn how to climb - it brings you back and into a cool reality. But mostly realize that most days are full on ass-kicking days. Anyone who claims to be on all the time, or not afraid of whips, bolts, feet exposure - or just breathing - are full of crap!

Us NA people focus too much on the quick fix, the 24/7 lifestyle and forget that most times are tough, but that's sort of the fun part, dealing with the reality of the daily reality versus what we want, should have, or have done - but what we are actually doing that given time. Climbing is fricking great and we are lucky to have it as our centre part of our lives - it provides way more than any million dollar a year job could. You can't bring your dollars with you, but the memories of what we've seen and experienced are pretty damn cool! Most of my buds i grew up with are in the 500+ per year realm and they have the stuff - the super duper vacations, but they pretty much see what is supposed to be seen, versus the real parts of the world we get to experience - you on for some playground action?